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Becoming a Neonatologist

What Does It Take?

Neonatology is a subspecialty of pediatrics. This means that neonatologists complete their training in pediatrics, and then do further training in neonatology. Let's trace a typical pathway into the field.

The first step is obtaining an undergraduate degree. It is not necessary to go to a private undergraduate school, or to be a premed "major" in order to get into medical school. Furthermore, neonatologists come from every medical school in the United States. So, pick the schools – undergraduate and medical school that you like, that fit your budget, and are in a place you want to be. Don't pick the ones you, or someone else, thinks are the schools needed to get ahead in medicine.

Planning during Medical School

So, let's start by focusing on medical school, and what one can do during medical school, if you have an interest in neonatology.

  1. Be a good medical student in all areas. It is not necessary to focus only on STEP scores, or to participate in pediatric-oriented research in medical school in order to match into pediatrics. Pediatric residency training programs are looking for strong students, who demonstrate an interest and an aptitude for children. Here are some specific suggestions for those who might be interested in neonatology.
    • Spend a day during your first year 'shadowing' a neonatologist. This will give you a chance to see what life is like from a neonatologist's point of view. Neonatologists have wonderful moments taking care of babies, but also some trying moments. Try to get a chance to see both.
    • Make an appointment before starting your third year to talk to a neonatologist about the career. Ask the questions you really want to ask – about lifestyle, stress, salary, etc. See if you can identify a neonatologist as a mentor and guide.
    • If it is possible, see if there are any clinical research projects you can participate in. However, this is not mandatory, and the projects don't have to be related to pediatrics or neonatology.
    • Consider getting involved in some community service activities involving children. Pediatricians, including neonatologists, are advocates for children. See how this fits with your interests, and if you enjoy this role.
  2. Consider strongly doing a sub–internship in neonatology, if your school offers one, or try to arrange to do one at another hospital. This is NOT essential, but it is a great way to learn about the field. I decided to become a neonatologist after doing a sub-I in a NICU in 1982.
  3. As you prepare your personal statement for the match, mention your interest in neonatology (and related fields). This will give the programs a chance to plan to have someone talk with you about the program and its neonatology program.
  4. However, ultimately, you do NOT need to pick a residency in pediatrics based on its neonatology program. Certainly, this can be a factor, but lots of great neonatologists have done their residencies at places with small NICUs.

Final Countdown

Well, this is easy, call us up here at Texas Children's Hospital and we'll see what we can do! Seriously, let's take this by years and consider a plan of action.

    • Prior to PL-1 year. Once you've matched, tell your new program director (PD) of your interest in neonatology. You certainly can change your mind, but most PDs will help identify for you a neonatologist as a faculty mentor or at least suggest to you neonatologists, who might be worth talking to.
    • PL-1 year: There is no reason to worry about your schedule or making sure you have just the right neonatology rotation. What you should do is really explore the field as much as possible and begin to seriously consider the options. People interested in neonatology often are also interested in other pediatric critical care fields such as pediatric critical care or pediatric cardiology. Explore your interests in these fields as well to be sure that neonatology is right for you.
    • PL-2 year: In the first part of the year, you will need to begin to come to a decision about your choice. Most will make a decision by the middle of their PL-2 year or not later than March or April of that year. This MAY mean adjusting your schedule to obtain a PL-2 level experience in a NICU, and does mean talking with neonatologists and your PD about your plans. After making the decision, you will need to work with your PD and those who are mentoring you to decide where to apply for fellowship.
      • In picking a fellowship, you need to consider all of the things you considered in picking a residency – location, the needs of your family remain important.
      • I would recommend, for most applicants who have a good academic record but do not have a Nobel Prize, considering applying to 5–10 programs. Apply across the country, if not geographically limited. Only limit yourself to 1 or 2 programs, if family concerns make it impossible for you to move.
      • In looking at programs, review their website carefully for information. Most competitive programs have websites, similar to our own website, which should provide details about the curriculum, and clinical and research training a fellow will receive during their fellowship. Pay particular attention to the opportunities for research. A neonatology fellow will spend more months doing research than patient care. Consider whether you want programs more heavily basic science oriented in their research or more clinically oriented. If possible, talk with several neonatologists about research opportunities and career opportunities.
      • Interviewing will mostly go on in the spring – from February through May for most. Try to go to at least 4–5 interviews.
    • PL-3 year: You need to make a final decision in the fall about where you want to rank for the match. Second visits are uncommon, but don't hesitate to spend time on the phone or otherwise communicating with key people at your top choices.
      • Check the NRMP Specialties Matching Website for the 'Match submission date' and 'Match Day.' If you matched, immediately call your PD and begin the process of planning for fellowship. If not, there are likely to be unmatched spots in neonatology, so begin the process of sorting out these openings.
      • Good luck – try to spend time after match day thinking about your research and beginning to make contacts at the place you are matching. This isn't always possible, but a good search of the website of the institution related to research is worth the time

      Helpful Links

      Information on the following websites should be independently reviewed. Their inclusion here does not indicate endorsement (by BCM, the BCM Department of Pediatrics or Section of Neonatology, or BCM-affiliated hospitals and institutions) of the organization or the information provided.